Antisocial media | HBR Talk 141


As a result of using social bookmarking to share information I learned through my friend’s experience of malicious prosecution by his ex-wife, I’ve been a user on a lot of social media sites. Through watching various sites evolve, I’ve noticed one factor that has been common to all of them. As they grow, they all reach a point in size and diversity of perspectives at which they attract a contingent of thought police who appeal to the site’s administrators to begin policing interactions between users.

It begins with female victim narratives and requests for anti-bullying measures that are limited enough to sound reasonable, such as policy that forbids users from spamming or stalking other users, or heckling others with viciously abusive language.

These rules never remain simple or limited, however, as the site thought police push for incremental policy expansions from anti-bullying to anti-rudeness to censoring or penalizing political incorrectness according to the standards of progressive identity politics. Finally, administrators become full-blown babysitters, and begin manipulating the way content is displayed. Users are left scrambling to keep up with a complicated set of rules for what they can or cannot say without becoming, to varying degrees, un-personed. Users at the forefront of intellectual discussion on the affected site abandon it for some more welcoming forum, where the cycle can begin again.

I saw this phenomenon affect numerous smaller or more niche social media sites, with some dying out because their increasingly complicated rules choked out the social engagement the sites existed to facilitate, while others just became very exclusive and largely socially irrelevant. I’ve also watched it affect the big social media conglomerates, whose administrators appear to feel entitled to use it to manipulate public opinion to suit their own standards.

It hit reddit in 2013 when a largely manufactured scandal erupted over unsavory subreddits, following a campaign led by site feminists (particularly those from the subreddit “shit reddit says,”) with support from the gossip blog Gawker. The result was a purge - the axing of a group of image subreddits and the very public cancellation of one of the site’s busiest (and arguably one of its most caustic) subreddit moderators, followed by a misrepresentation of the targets, and threats to engage in further politically correct censorship on the site. These threats have since come to fruition in the form of mass shadowbans, content deletion, limiting access, and purging political subreddits completely unrelated to the original purge. Recently, it has gotten so bad that the moderators of /r/JusticeServed trolled its readers by posting that “Due to the new reddit updates to it's policies and rules, as well as administrator conversations with users; we can no longer allow any posts, comments, or other content that shows a POC...” [people of color] “ the aggressor. This is considered hate speech and/or harassment towards an important minority group and is no longer allowed,” and at first, the rule was presumed real and commented on despite that subreddit’s moderators’ history of trolling their readers with similar gags.

The same year as reddit’s plunge, Twitter began its foray into political censorship in response to heated debate… over putting Jane Austin’s portrait on currency in the UK. In the course of this debate, the campaigner alleged (with very little evidence) a flood of abuse and demanded a new addition to the site’s existing abuse reporting features. Initially, Twitter did not comply. A group called Women Action & the Media engaged in a public pressure campaign, targeting the site’s advertisers just as reddit’s critics did. Twitter caved, and that’s how user profiles got their report buttons. Soon, the site was imitating reddit’s penalty tools which limit user visibility or access to site features as a punishment for disapproved themes or styles of public communication. Sometime in 2017, Twitter removed from its “about” page its original mission statement, “Our mission: to give everyone the power to create and share ideas and information instantly, without barriers,” obviously because they couldn’t very well claim to be dedicated to that while throttling their users’ communications.

Probably one of Twitter’s funniest moments was its CEO trying to convince the public the site  wasn’t shadowbanning users for having unapproved political opinions. His argument? Well, yes, twitter was hiding users’ posts from other users without communicating to the hidden user that his or her posts are now invisible. Yes, that’s exactly what a shadowban is. However, he’s not calling that a shadowban… so it’s totally different from Reddit’s shadowban, which involves making a user’s posts invisible to everyone but the user, without informing the user that any action has been taken. See? Totally different!

Meanwhile, facebook and youtube also began unveiling new site “features” purportedly intended to improve user experience by... limiting the variety of things that would appear in users’ news feed to items from contacts or content producers with whose posts they most frequently engaged. See, this way if you happen to miss your friend’s post, or see it without responding to it, the site guarantees you’ll be likely to miss more of that friend’s content in the future, and eventually you won’t see any of it at all! What an excellent tool for users who follow random strangers on social media with no interest whatsoever in any ideas they might happen to express!

Soon, both sites were using this and other policy changes to carry out political censorship in many of the same ways as twitter and reddit. After all, if they make another user’s content less visible in general, and then you don’t interact with it, so you’re shown less and less of it until it stops showing in your feed at all, it’s not the site administrators’ fault you’re not exposed to that content. It’s just that you lost interest!

Youtubers, noting administrator engagement, began a campaign of complaints about an important issue with apparent predators exploiting the site to congregate around questionable videos featuring children. The administrators responded by taking a hard-line stance against... political speech that was very conservative, very traditionalist, or very opposed to victim identitarian narratives.

Facebook users began drawing that site’s administrators’ attention to certain islamic terrorist groups that were using its features as a recruiting tool. Like youtube, the administrators responded by taking a very hard-line stance… against political speech that was very conservative, very traditionalist, or very opposed to victim identitarian narratives. 

All of this has only escalated since the 2016 US presidential election, after which the Democrat party and its big media supporters blamed open discussion on social media for Hillary Clinton’s failure to win. The now-discredited allegation that American voters were heavily manipulated by “paid Russian trolls” was widely reported. The social media giants acted on their progressive constituents’ complaints by increasing their control of public discussion on their platforms. “Election interference!” they screamed, and began accusing everyone they disagreed with of being Russian bots bent on wrongly influencing Americans’ political opinions. Of course, that also meant it was time for another purge.

Youtube continued to ignore predators, but began removing eligibility to play ads for revenue on channels that featured political discussion, addressing their predator issue only after it became the subject of a congressional investigation. By the way, this video was probably demonetized before it received its first view. Much of my work gets demonetized within moments of being scheduled or published. 

If today’s censorship policies had existed when my friend’s terrible ordeal in the court system first led me to sites like reddit, it’s likely that I wouldn’t have been allowed to discuss the case on social media. In fact, had such policy existed then, reddit’s administrators probably would have banned /r/mensrights, where Karen, Alison, and I first met, as soon as they knew it existed. There would have been no reddit discussion on the due process violations many men’s rights advocates have observed in conjunction with domestic violence allegations, no communication between users working together to campaign for custody reform, no analysis of data from the CDC’s intimate partner and sexual violence survey. The massive growth the men’s rights movement experienced during the 20-teens might not have happened so quickly or so soon, if at all, since much of it took place via conversation that likely wouldn’t have occurred in today’s environment.

When the Russian election manipulation narrative was later discredited, none of the policies enacted in response to it were reversed. Instead, new things were added.

Twitter and facebook have both begun flagging posts as inaccurate if they disapprove of the information contained in them. They respond with alternative sources that meet their approval. This, they call “fact checking.” Recently, Twitter did this to posts by President Trump, offering an opinion piece in response to one post only to be quickly countered by users posting news documentation that proved the president right. Later, Twitter treated a joke as a serious statement in another post, flagged it as fake news, and eventually banned a meme creator in response to it. More recently, the president tweeted a policy statement on the federal government’s handling of Antifa violence, and Twitter marked it in violation of the site’s rules against abuse. 

Elitist social media administrators have deemed themselves arbiters of truth and gatekeepers of information. Youtube just flat-out hides content its administrators don’t want you to see. Reddit  recently purged Trump supporting subreddits. Twitter throttles the communications of users who harbor any wrongthink. Facebook creatively un-prioritizes them into oblivion.

The same companies whose administrators cried “election interference” over the horrifying phenomenon of open, public debate on their platforms have taken a position within the spectrum of competing political outlooks held by US citizens, and deemed it to be the “correct” viewpoint, to the exclusion of all others. They are now transparently imposing deference to that viewpoint on their users, engaging in the very thing they previously accused in order to excuse their initiation of censorship policies. They have become the very monster they told us we should fear. That makes me wonder… what kind of response do they expect?

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